Welcoming the Year of the Rat
Wooden barrow carts started to make an appearance on virtually every street corner selling bright red lanterns. People started to hang these from their apartment windows and balconies in the hope of attracting luck for the New Year. Other numerous road-side stalls started to appear, selling fireworks more fanciful, but more importantly louder, than those normally available. These temporary shops were standard market stalls, the big boxes of fireworks exposed to the elements and to those who tested their fireworks by lighting them on the pavement next to the stall. The Chinese might have invented Fireworks but they certainly didn’t think up those firework safety campaigns that we see in England for the 2 hours we actually light fireworks every year.
A day before New Year’s Eve our school closed for the start of the 7 day holiday. Most workers would also be getting 7 days, that’s the funny thing about China, the whole country goes on holiday at the same time; you can imagine how congested the transport system gets, people complain and rightfully so when they have to stand for an hour on a commuter train from London to Brighton, try 50 hours without a seat. It took a public holiday for me to fully appreciate just how many people there are in China. On New Years Day, the streets, parks and pavements were a mass of people, it was impossible to walk in a straight line, I had to constantly walk to the left, right and go back on myself to avoid the seething moving crowds. The roads were clogged with every form of transport trying to simultaneously honk their way forward through the traffic jam to the nonexistent front. I had chosen the wrong day to go shopping; I couldn’t face the prospect of fighting against so many people at the cashiers so I gave up on the idea and returned to our flat.
We had been invited by Suki, one of Tanja’s adult students, to join her family for their New Years Eve dinner and we, although nervous that seafood being very popular in Wenzhou wouldn’t be able to eat anything, were delighted to accept their generosity. We met Suki for a coffee and she brought along a couple of friends whom she said wanted to chat with us, as they didn’t actually say much over coffee, I suspected they just wanted to have a look at us; foreigners still being a rarity. As we arrived at the restaurant a few fireworks were being set off in the street, tall cones sprayed white flames 6 feet into the air. Rockets were launched into the sky and exploded 20 feet above the main road, above the busy commercial and residential area. People walked by, barely giving the explosions a second glance. Outside the entrance to the restaurant a shoe-shine man was setting up his stall. We climbed a wide staircase flanked along the centre with large golden frogs that led up to the second floor. Suki’s parents had hired a small private room within the restaurant; this is a common theme in restaurants in China, affording the customers a rarity - some privacy. Suki had asked us over coffee what food we liked and we had explained that whilst I simply didn’t like fish or seafood Tanja was allergic and after being introduced to Suki’s parents they left the private room to choose the food, with this in mind. Shortly after they returned, several dishes were brought to our room by a waitress who barely disguised her surprise at seeing two laiwai eating a Spring Festival dinner with a Chinese family.
Many different dishes were placed on the centre of the table and everyone was to take a little from the communal dishes and put the food into their own small bowl, in addition to the small bowl, we each had a plate which was to be used to put the bones and other inedible parts of the food. I made a faux pas straight away and started to eat off the waste plate. All the communal dishes looked promising and I was keen to at least try a little of everything. One of the dishes looked like an omelette but when I went to take a slice was told that it was made from fish but was assured it tasted delicious, the family were keen for us to try it and as I had a waste plate I tore off a small piece with my chopsticks. It didn’t look like fish and it didn’t taste like fish, so to me it was edible. The family used my endorsement to tempt Tanja with a little too. Throwing caution to the wind, vomiting and itching to later, Tanja tried a morsel. Much to the approval of the family it stayed down and Suki’s father toasted everyone with a glass of ‘Dynasty’ red wine. There were vegetable, beef, and pork dishes and a noodle dish.
The Chinese attach medicinal benefits and associate proverbs with their food and the noodle dish, we were told, would bring us wealth and would even make us taller in the forthcoming year; we had second helpings. There was a plate of strawberries and an Indian dish that tasted of a thin pancake fried in oil, these were served and eaten at the same time as the other food. We put a little of a dish into our bowl, ate that and then tried something else, it was a very sociable way to eat. After the communal dishes were finished more food was brought in. Suki translated for her mother that Tanja would be fine eating the fish, and I literally mean fish, that had just been placed on the table, as it was fried, unable to counter that argument politely we both tried a little. As a plate of prawns was brought to the table Suki peeled back the head and skin and placed one each for Tanja and me in our bowls. Then a self-explanatory speciality known as shark fin soup was brought in, this was in our opinion the literal opposite of delicious. Thankfully every time we tried something that Tanja was allergic to, Suki’s father said ‘gun-bay’, which meant we could at least wash the mouthful down with some wine.
Another part of Suki’s family were also eating dinner at the restaurant and Suki said they were keen to speak to us. Pleasantly full we left our room and went to meet them. This room was larger with three round tables each capable of seating ten people, there was also a flat-screen TV on the wall so families could watch the New Year’s Eve celebrations on TV. We were introduced to Suki’s Grandmother on her father’s side and her father’s brothers, plural as they were born before the single child policy, their wives and children, singular, born after. The family made way for us, chairs were found and a glass each. They filled our glasses with more Dynasty and we said ‘gun-bay’ to each other. The Chinese are very proud of their cuisine and Suki was eager to explain to us the various dishes on their table. We were told as a way of persuasion that the raw muscles were in fact very good for us. Suki the ever accommodating host prised open the shell to reveal the bloody flesh. With an audience of three generations we sucked up the flesh, frantically swallowed and the liberally washed it down with more Dynasty. We considered we had eaten enough seafood to save face and politely turned down the crab. Suki’s family are from Wenzhou and speak the Wenzhouhua dialect, Mandarin is their second language, and after wishing them a happy new year in their dialect we left their table. Even though we assured Suki’s mother that we were both quite contentedly full we walked back to our room through the central area, where all the food is displayed and cooked. It was similar to a buffet set-up except some of the food you choose is still alive. We were undoubtedly full as we walked past tanks with live turtles, frogs, snails, fish and a tray full of a sea creature that was a cross between a snail and a slug and the size of a man’s shoe. "We cut off a slice and then cook it in water." Suki informed us before going on to add "It is still alive when we take a slice". Maybe out of sympathy for the poor nameless sea-creature’s plight, Tanja’s allergy started to materialise and her palms started to itch.
Dinner was over and it was time for Suki to meet with friends at her house and to light some fireworks to scare away the demons for the New Year. We thanked Suki’s parents for their warmth and hospitality and tried to remember how to wish them a Happy New Year in their dialect. As we left the restaurant the sky was alive with explosions and colour and the sky remained a constant eruption for the whole journey home. The main time the fireworks are set off to celebrate the New Year is not surprisingly at 12.00am but from as early as 7.00am that morning fireworks had been sporadically set off, now as midnight approached the intervals diminished and ripples of explosions sounded all around, echoing off the buildings and the distant mountains.
The fish and seafood made one last protest and assault against Tanja’s body and she had to retire to the bathroom for the rest of the evening. I stood on the living room balcony with a light drizzle falling and watched the ever increasing spectacle. As I watched different parts of the city sky erupt in a riot of colour I could also see the people in the neighbouring flats go about their normal business, collecting laundry from their balconies, cleaning, watching celebrities welcome the New Year on television; they seemed oblivious to the noise and I was at least the only person I could see actually watching the fireworks. As the intervals between the explosions decreased a thick acrid fog of burnt gunpowder started to fall and the heavy smell of spent fireworks started to fill the air. There wasn’t a single area that wasn’t a periodic frenzy of colour and noise. Then rockets were fired from the window of our downstairs neighbour, exploding just short of the apartment block in front of ours. Some of the owners of the 3 million Yuan apartment blocks in one of the most exclusive areas of Wenzhou set off fireworks from the windows of their 30 storey high tower. In the momentary lull between explosions car alarms could be heard, set off from the force of the booming bangers. Rockets sprinkled white, purple and green light into the sky, like a flower in full bloom, before falling to the ground. Then the boom would follow. Fierce, ugly, menacing sounds would tear through the sky as firecrackers were set off in the street, I closed my eyes and the sounds of machine guns and bombs filled my mind. Still, for as far as I could see, I was the only one watching this spectacle and I wondered if the demons were frightened away or if they were as nonchalant as the locals. Another brief, second-long lull and the sound of a car horn could be heard as it raced to its destination. The hour of midnight approached and as more and more explosions filled the sky the neighbouring apartment blocks were illuminated in the white light of exploding rockets and the exclusive tower block 150 meters away was slowly being engulfed in a veil of gunpowder smoke. Then at five minutes to twelve they could hold back the assault no longer and then from roof tops, from windows, from parks, from the street they launched their attack on the demons that might dare to bring them bad luck. Every inch of the sky and air boomed and colourful fire was painted over the black night sky. The noise was relentless and the explosions ceaseless.
I wondered what the Chinese would think of the British, 2 hour spectacle once a year, whether they would find it rather dull and quiet. I was in the thick of the attack and it was exhilarating, the air was charged and the explosions continued unabated for the next 40 minutes, then slowly over the next few hours, pauses of blackness accentuated the onslaught as the sky fell defeated. Sporadic explosions continued throughout the night and yet still more demons needed to be chased away as the dawn broke on the New Years Day. It is now the day after New Years Day and still the silence has not returned as, in a Chinese city it never will.
By Stratford Blyth